Today’s saint has a strange name and an even stranger resume. Her name alone seems to relegate her to the 12th century, where she clearly belongs: Saint Hildegard of Bingen. It’s just so very German, and so very…ancient, sounding. She seems like one of those saints that we should just let rest, in peace.
Yet, less than 10 years ago, Pope Benedict called all Catholics to rediscover her when he first canonized her, and then named a “Doctor” of the Church 6 months later. This means that not only should we not let her rest, but that we, in our times, have something special to learn from her. In order to learn what, though, it would help to refresh on some of the basic biographical data that helps us to understand where she is coming from.
For most saints, a quick web-search would suffice. What one discovers, when she tries to google Hildegard of Bingen, is that this saint is remembered for more than just her sanctity and teaching. As it turns out, she was a poet, playwright, composer, philosopher, homeopathic medicine practitioner, prophet, prolific writer, visionary, Benedictine nun and abbess. She accomplished more in her lifetime in the 12th century than most of us can hope to, even with modern conveniences.
After realizing the breadth of her accomplishments, I knew I wanted to know more about this incredible woman (turns out the Pope was right). Fortunately, I didn’t have to look far, or dig into a heavy tome, as I knew Endow had recently published a study about her and other Doctors of the Church.
My Endow group of women has been meeting together for a few years, and we were all up for the challenge—we all wanted to know why the Pope had bothered to unearth an unknown saint to name her just the fourth female Doctor of the Church.
For those unfamiliar: Endow is an apostolate dedicated to helping women form intentional communities in order to study the Tradition of the Faith. My group has done many of their studies—they address challenging topics while fostering meaningful conversation (all with no homework!). It’s a commitment to community and personal formation that we all keep coming back to, despite busy lives.
What is a Doctor?
Fortunately, it wasn’t hard to convince my Endow group to get started on this study, as almost all of us had this initial question: we know that there are Doctors of the Church, but do we actually know what that means? Realizing that this is where many women in the Church are at, the study begins with defining what a Doctor is and helping us to see why this is so special—in over 2000 years of Church history, only 36 saints have been named Doctors of the Church.
Essentially, a Doctor of the Church is someone who has been recognized by the Church as having lived a holy life and having deepened the whole Church’s understanding of the Faith. Each Doctor has contributed something of universal value to the Church as a whole, helping to significantly build the rich Tradition that has been passed down through the centuries.
Are all Doctors of the Church Teachers?
In a sense, yes, all Doctors of the Church are Teachers. They all teach in some way, but not all of them were professional teachers. Somehow, the Endow study managed to summarize the basic lives of all 36 of the Doctors—not going into great detail, but giving us a glimpse of the diversity of all of the different Doctors.
As my small group discussed the different Doctors, we came to realize how very human each of them was, too. From Saint Jerome’s famous temper to Saint Francis de Sales’s gentle leadership, we saw how the Doctors were each unique individuals, aided by their own communities to become the people they were meant to be. We also saw how each Doctor was not necessarily important in the time that he or she lived, but became an invaluable teacher for a different age. The best example of this was Saint Therese, who was a cloistered nun in her lifetime, but has helped millions in the modern Church to find a ‘little way’ to Christ.
Saint Hildegard of Bingen, A Doctor for Us
All of the background on the Doctors was helpful context for helping us to understand Saint Hildegard on a more personal level. Since she has such a diverse list of accomplishments, we were all able to relate to her for different things she did. On the surface, she seems to have lived a fairly ordinary life for the time: her parents sent her to live in a Benedictine Abbey at a young age, there, she grew up, professed vows, and worked within the abbey as a medicinal healer. This is about where the ordinary-ness of her life ends.
Hildegard began receiving visions as a child, but did not share them with anyone until later in her life. Then, she was guided by her abbess, spiritual directors and priests when it was time to share with the general public. Before she began sharing them, however, she spent years intensively praying and studying, almost as intentional preparation for the public life to come, though she had no way of knowing the life she would lead as one of the most influential women of the 12th century.
Eventually, she lived the sort of life and accomplished the sort of things that make her seem more legendary than real. Her holiness began to attract others to join her; she became abbess of a thriving group of nuns for whom she wrote plays and a new style of chant (a new recording of her chant was nominated for a Grammy in 1995). She also began writing, first a book on homeopathic medicine and philosophy, and then three serious theological treatises recording and explaining the visions she received from God. While she wrote these, she managed to found and build an entirely independent abbey of nuns, travel and preach to combat the prevailing heresy of her day, and advise the countless people, including Popes and the Emperors, who asked her for advice.
Her life provides a lot of food for thought and discussion—she eventually became a strong personality who knew her mission in life, but seeing that develop as she grew from childhood into being a leading voice in the Catholic was fascinating for all of us.
An Example of the Feminine Genius
My Endow group was especially struck by the incredible teaching and example Hildegard gave of Femininity. Not only was Hildegard a respected leader in a world dominated by men, but she also put forward an entirely new philosophy of masculine and feminine complementarity that laid the foundations for the Church’s current understanding of gender complementarity. We all loved reading the stories of how Hildegard stood up to the men in her life who tried to dominate her, and appreciated how she managed to do this in a completely feminine way.
Ultimately, our discussions of her life helped us to come to see her as someone we can all appreciate, even though she did live so long ago. The women of my Endow group are of all different ages, experiences and careers; some are single, some have children, some work outside the home and some do not.
At the same time, all of us are deeply interested in how we can live our personal, feminine vocation. We are all looking for examples of women who have lived out their feminine genius and teachers who can help us to understand that vocation more clearly. Saint Hildegard of Bingen helped us to do both, and I am grateful that Pope Benedict reminded us of her, and that Endow gave us the opportunity to do that in such a fruitful way.
Saint Hildegard of Bingen, Doctor of the Church, pray for us!
To check out Endow’s study on Saint Hildegard of Bingen, please go here.